Unlocking museums for education and research

 Vocational tour of Rotary Kampala South to Ssemagulu Royal Museum. PHOTO/COURTESY 

What you need to know:

  • Museums are a goldmine of knowledge. and they ought to be  paid attention to.

Yesterday, Uganda joined the rest of the world to celebrate the International Museum Day 2024 in Soroti City.

Mutundwe, which means “be sold” in Luganda, was named after the earliest economic activity in the area, which was slavery. In the 19th century, it was one of the leading slaveholding areas within Buganda.

Slave masters built high boundary walls to prevent slaves from escaping. Until recently, little attention was paid to Mutundwe’s historic involvement in slavery. 

There is no museum in Uganda focused solely on the role of the Buganda Kingdom and Uganda as a whole in the history of slavery. The Ssemagulu Royal Museum sheds light on this history and serves as an educational resource for the public. 

Advancing SDG 4 and 9
During a recent visit, I observed four school buses parked outside the gate of the museum. Through the gate, I saw a large group of students engaged in various activities, such as music, dance and drama (MDD), learning to prepare indigenous dishes, and exploring the wreckage of Uganda’s first prime minister and chief justice Benedict Kiwanuka’s car, which was moved to the museum in 2018. 

John Ssempebwa, the museum proprietor, believes that museums play a crucial role in fostering critical thinking, empathy, and other important skills and dispositions among students. The theme for International Museums Day (IMD) this year Museums for Education and Research, highlighting the significance of museums as dynamic educational institutions that foster learning, discovery, and cultural understanding.

For the last four years, IMD advances a set of goals from the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Goal 4 and 9 are the focus of 2024 which emphasises inclusive and equitable quality education, industry, innovation and infrastructure respectively.  The Buganda Heritage and Tourism Board (BHTB) CEO, Omukungu Albert Kasozi, emphasises the power of museums in teaching subject-specific content and skills, as well as the need for innovation and preservation of tradition. 

New Buganda Kingdom Museum 
The Buganda Kingdom and Makerere University recently completed the renovation of Muteesa’s building, which now houses the Sir Edward Muteesa II Museum, showcasing the history of the 35th King of Buganda.

Additionally, Kyambogo University announced plans to erect a museum in honour of Ssekabaka Muteesa I Walugembe Kayiira, the 30th Kabaka, following the fall of the monumental tree where he sat with British explorer Henry Morton Stanley in 1875. In 2002, there were plans for a Buganda Museum under the then Katikkiro of Buganda Mulwanyamuli Ssemwogerere to preserve the kingdom’s rich heritage and royal artifacts.

Now, a new heritage museum honouring the royalty, culture, and tradition of the Buganda Kingdom is set to open its doors at Lubiri Mengo next to Butikiro, the official residence of the kingdom prime minister.

The museum which will showcase rare collections, pictures, and books that tell the story of the Buganda Kingdom is expected to open on July 1, 2024.

The phased project, worth Shs400m, includes the Buganda museum art gallery, Buganda Royal Music School, a theatre, royal gardens, conference rooms, a cafeteria, a well-stocked library, an archives centre, and nine craft shops. BHTB has partnered with various institutions, including the Smithsonian Institution, Manchester, and Oxford, to ensure the success of this endeavour. Faziira Nassolo, the head of marketing at BHTB, revealed that Friday Arts Association has been engaged to operationalise the craft shops. 

She notes that Ugandans and international visitors have an opportunity to purchase authentic crafts and souvenir products, some made out of indigenous backcloth produced from the Mutuba tree (Ficus natalensis) at an affordable price. Commenting on the proposed museum, Kasozi says: “We aim to equip it with the latest methods in collection, preservation, presentation, and documentation. It will be a cultural and historical window that provides an important record of the aesthetic and heritage values of Buganda Kingdom and its cultural influence.”

Lack of  funding
Facing the challenges of meeting the needs and desires of new generations, increasing population diversity, and the digital revolution, the museum sector acknowledges the need for change. However, the response has been slow. 

Emmanuel Ssemwanga, from Brims Heritage Resource Centre, operates a mobile museum that can be set up in schools or public spaces for people to view the artifacts. He points out that this approach is not sustainable because it can lead to damage to the items due to constant transport. Ssemwanga emphasises that lack of funding is a major constraint for his museum to play a more significant role in research and education. 

He expresses the need for government grants or private donations to establish infrastructure and reduce operational costs. Ssemwanga also notes that opportunities for such support are currently unavailable. He mentions that the government has not provided financial support to private museums, despite their contribution to the government’s efforts.

Abraham Kitaulwa, the chairperson of the Uganda Community Museums Association (UCOMA) and the owner of the Kigulu Cultural Museum in Iganga, agrees that the lack of funding is a major setback. He believes that increased funding would raise awareness and publicity for museums across the country, leading to more museum visits. Abraham also emphasises the need for funding to improve glass storage and preserve their artifacts, such as indigenous foods and medicinal plants. He gives an example of the challenge in preserving a special type of mushroom in Busoga, known as Amaleere, which grows on decaying matter that is no longer visible. 

Implementing modern technology
Additionally, implementing and maintaining modern technology for virtual tours, digital archives, and interactive exhibits requires significant investment and expertise. Abraham, who oversees a membership of 35 registered community museums, points out the lack of technological integration in most museums, including the 30 unregistered ones.

He explains that the absence of social media tools has hindered their ability to engage with the youth, a key target audience. Abraham further calls on the Ministry of Education and Sports to encourage schools to undertake research and heritage visits to museums in the new curriculum. “Schools should move away from abstract teaching methods and instead take students to visit the nearest museum in the country!”

Women involved 
Women often face unique socio-economic challenges in society, and a new approach by museum professionals is to use cultural heritage to boost the economy of women. The museum has been successful in empowering women such as Gertrude Kabaganda, who is the curator of the Koogere Community Museum in Fort Portal City. In an interview at the exhibition held at Uganda Museum recently, Kabaganda mentioned that money has never been a challenge.

She stated: “With enthusiasm, we utilise the available cultural resources to run the museum sustainably.” This has been achieved through making handicrafts, selling documented books, and using the proceeds to cover operational costs. They have been able to buy two laptops and hire two technical staff to manage the technology. Aligning museum educational programmes with school curricula can be difficult, requiring collaboration with educational institutions to create meaningful and standardised content. 

Kabaganda mentioned that Koogere has trained teachers to supervise heritage clubs in 13 secondary, five primary schools and to promote heritage education awareness among the young population in communities.

Cultural tourism has been enhanced through indigenous food tasting, traditional dressing, and the empaako (naming) ritual, predominantly among the Batooro and Banyoro. The museum’s sources of income since 2016 are student visits, international tourists, and the hiring of items such as calabashes and gourds for traditional marriage ceremonies.

Kabaganda emphasised the importance of community museums in cultural tourism and called upon the government to support them. 

We can do better 

Meanwhile, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) urges museums to work collaboratively across the sector to involve new and more sustainable systems and standards. They are committed to providing marketing and promotion opportunities to museums through media, expos, and museum displays in Europe and other source markets. 

“The limitation with resources is a challenge, but we hope to do better,” says Lilly Ajarova, the chief executive officer. The UTB boss further calls upon museums to increasingly adopt sustainable practices, which may require significant changes to operations and infrastructure.

She emphasises that a museum’s commitment to the environment should be evident at all levels, from the decisions of the directors to the composition of the collection and the management of services dedicated to the public.